The Real History of the Commons and Today’s Environmental Crisis

article image
Illustration By David McLimans
The growth of industrial capitalism has always been predicated on the private enclosure of the natural world. And these enclosures have always met with resistance.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential election in which
both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time that our schools
begin to play their part in creating climate literate citizens.

Hurricane Sandy,
and the superstorms that will certainly follow, are not just acts of
nature–they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared
by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies
relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse
gases–stealing what belongs to us all.

Most U.S.
and world history textbooks teach students to ignore the role of nature in
history. But students need to know the environmental history of our current climate
crises, including how nature was turned into a commodity to be bought and sold,
and used for private profit. If we don’t, they’ll have a hard time recognizing
what–and who–is responsible for today’s environmental crisis.

Raj Patel defines the commons in his excellent book The
Value of Nothing

A commons is a resource, most often land, and refers both
to the territory and to the ways people allocate the goods that come from that
land. The commons has traditionally provided food, fuel, water, and medicinal
plants for those who used it–it was the poorest people’s life-support system.

If the history of the commons is taught at all in history
classes, it’s likely as a passing reference to English enclosures–the process
by which lands traditionally used in common by the poor for growing food,
grazing animals, collecting firewood, and hunting game, were fenced off and
turned into private property. Some textbooks mention the peasant riots that
were a frequent response to enclosures, or specific groups like the Diggers
that actively resisted enclosure by tearing down fences and re-establishing
common areas for growing food. But to students reading their world history
texts, this doomed fight by the rural poor must seem tragically
misguided–especially since it is buried amidst chapters that champion the
innovation and progress brought on by the new economic order of industrial

Some texts, like McDougal Littell’s Modern World History,
skip the peasants’ resistance entirely, but sing the praises of innovative and
enterprising wealthy landowners:

In 1700, small farms covered England’s landscape. Wealthy
landowners, however, began buying up much of the land that village farmers had
once worked. The large landowners dramatically improved farming methods. These
innovations amounted to an agricultural revolution.

After buying up the land of village farmers, wealthy landowners
enclosed their land with fences or hedges. The increase in their landholdings
enabled them to cultivate larger fields. Within these larger fields, called
enclosures, landowners experimented with more productive seeding and harvesting
methods to boost crop yields. The enclosure movement had two important results.
First, landowners tried new agricultural methods. Second, large landowners
forced small farmers to become tenant farmers or to give up farming and move to
the cities.

Students could fairly assume that English enclosures
involved a fair exchange between “wealthy landowners” and “village farmers,”
not the forceful, sometimes violent, evictions that removed peasants from land
that their families had often worked for generations. Take the account of Betsy
Mackay, 16, whose family was evicted by the Duke of Sutherland in the late 18th
century enclosures in Scotland
referred to now as “the clearances”:

Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for
some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both
ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to
escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they
had on their back. The people were told they could go where they liked,
provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The
people were driven away like dogs.

The McDougal Littell version of history silences the voices
of the poor, who struggled for centuries in England
to maintain their traditional rights to common lands–rights enshrined in 1217
in the Charter of the Forest, the
often-overlooked sister document to Magna Carta. But don’t bother looking for
the Charter of the Forest in the McDougal Littell text; although the book’s
prologue, “The Rise of Democratic Ideas,” praises Magna Carta for respecting
“the individual rights and liberties” of nobles, the truly democratic Charter
of the Forest didn’t make the cut.

We need our history curriculum to provide a lens of justice
and critical understanding for our students as they consider how to create a
better environmental future than we now face–without this lens we are apt to
end up with the sort of “innovative,” profit-driven schemes that serve
fossil-fuel companies and financial institutions more than future generations.
We need stories like those of Betsy Mackay, the Diggers, and the Charter of the
Forest to get students thinking critically about how the natural world–the
source of subsistence for all people in all times, including today–has been
appropriated historically to serve the interest of a few at the expense of the

The history of the commons is, of course, not limited to
land enclosures during the British agricultural revolution. Around the world,
European colonizers spent centuries violently “enclosing” the lands of
indigenous peoples throughout the Americas,
India, Asia, and Africa. And the process continues today, described by
Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva in her essay “The Enclosure of the

The “enclosure” of biodiversity and knowledge is the
final step in a series of enclosures that began with the rise of colonialism.
Land and forests were the first resources to be “enclosed” and converted from
commons to commodities. Later on, water resources were “enclosed” through dams,
groundwater mining, and privatization schemes. Now it is the turn of
biodiversity and knowledge to be “enclosed” through intellectual property

The destruction of commons was essential for the
industrial revolution, to provide a supply of natural resources for raw
material to industry. A life-support system can be shared; it cannot be owned
as private property or exploited for private profit. The commons, therefore,
had to be privatized, and people’s sustenance base in these commons had to be
appropriated, to feed the engine of industrial progress and capital
accumulation. The enclosure of the commons has been called the revolution of
the rich against the poor.

When framed as a war of the rich against the poor, the story
of enclosure is similar to Howard Zinn’s approach in A People’s History of
the United States
, in which he exposes the “fierce conflict of interest between
conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers,
dominators and dominated in race and sex.” The tremendous work of Zinn and
other social historians has reframed how history is taught in classrooms across
the country, a testament to Zinn’s belief that “in such a world of conflict, a
world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert
Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.” But to continue
Zinn’s work in an age of an environmental crisis, we must do more than tell the
people’s history–we also need to tell stories that emphasize the vital
relationships between people and the earth. In a world where corporate profits
threaten the livelihood of future generations, it is the job of teachers to be
on the side of those future generations.

Current U.S.
history curriculum also contributes to an ecological illiteracy. When we’re not
taught to understand the intimate and fundamental connections between people
and the environment in our nation’s history, it should come as no surprise that
we struggle to make these same connections today.

One of the few places where nature shows up in U.S. history
courses is an explanation of how Native American and European concepts of land
ownership differed. Here, for example, is Prentice Hall’s America on the subject:

One item that Native Americans never traded was land. In
their view, the land could not be owned. They believed that people had a right
to use land and could grant others the right to use it, too. To buy and sell
land, as other peoples have done throughout history, was unthinkable to them.
Land, like all of nature, deserved respect.

By contrast, the Europeans who arrived on North American
soil in the 1400s had quite a different idea about land ownership. They
frequently did not understand Indian attitudes and interpreted references to
land use as meaning land ownership. Such fundamental differences would prove to
have lasting consequences for both Native Americans and European settlers.

Every textbook I’ve seen presents the buying and selling of
land as a normal–even inevitable–part of human history. This is an opportunity
to explore a different version of history with students–a history that begins
with the naked truth, that land inhabited by Native Americans had to be stolen
before it could ever become private property. Instead, we have this later
section of America,
titled “Conflict With Native Americans”:

Although the Native Americans did help the English
through the difficult times, tensions persisted. Incidents of violence occurred
side by side with regular trade. Exchanges begun on both sides with good
intentions could become angry confrontations in a matter of minutes through
simple misunderstandings. Indeed, the failure of each group to understand the
culture of the other prevented any permanent cooperation between the English
and Native Americans.

This is history of the worst kind, in which a misguided
attempt at “balance” results in a morally ambiguous explanation for the
dispossession and murder of millions of Native Americans.

Howard Zinn offers a different version of the same story:
“Behind the English invasion of North America,
behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that
special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property.” For
hundreds of years after the first contact between Europeans and Native
Americans, the governments and laws of the colonizers worked, often violently,
to imprint this notion of private property on the lands and peoples of the Americas.

Although students often study the water cycle in biology,
that very same water disappears from view when studying the industrial
revolution in U.S.
history. Prentice Hall’s America
offers a prime example. After reading the section titled “Inventions and
Innovations,” students are likely to come away thinking that industrialization
was a process of witty and enterprising inventors using new technologies to
revolutionize the way that goods, from cloth to guns, were produced in the nation’s
burgeoning capitalist economy. Nature is not entirely absent from the section.
Students read a majestic description of New England’s
rivers, which “gathered strength as they descended from the mountains, surged
through valleys, and plunged over waterfalls.” It’s as if the rivers of the
Northeast were made to provide power, and were simply waiting to be harnessed
by the new industrialist revolution. America‘s discussion of nature and
industrialization stops here, without a hint of how factory owners appropriated
entire river systems, fundamentally transforming these ecosystems and
decimating the fish populations that so many poor people depended on for food–a
catastrophic story for those who weren’t reaping the profits of the new
industrial era.

like most texts, champions Samuel Slater, an immigrant who “smuggled” legally
protected knowledge of textile machinery from Britain,
in order to build the first textile factory in the United States.
Students read about how Slater “reproduced the complex British machinery,” in a
clothier’s shop in Pawtucket,
Rhode Island, and with the help
of business partners built “the nation’s first successful water-powered textile
mill in 1793”:

Textile producers soon began copying Slater’s methods. By
1814, the United States
boasted some 240 textile mills, most of them in Pennsylvania,
New York, and New England.
Slater and other mill owners grew wealthy by filling the needs of the growing
American population for more and more cloth.

Textbooks make industrialization seem like a process that
benefited the entire population. Thanks to the work of Zinn and other social
historians, stories of class struggle between factory workers and owners are
now at least referenced in texts like America. But students also
need to learn the history of the struggle over how nature would be used and who
had the right to use it.

In Down To Earth: Nature’s Role in American History,
Ted Steinberg uncovers the story of how nature–from rocks, trees, and rivers to
climate and soil fertility–factored into the classic struggles in U.S. history.
He argues for a deeper understanding of how the industrial revolution
fundamentally changed the relationship between people and nature:

The industrial revolution meant more than simply the rise
of factories, railroads, and new forms of work and social life. It brought
about class conflict under the factory roof–strikes and walkouts over wages and
hours–but it also involved a struggle over nature, over who would control it
and for what ends.

Steinberg explains that, before the rivers of the Northeast
were transformed into the “surging, plunging” sources of power described in America,
they served a different purpose in colonial American society:

In the spring, when winter stores ran low, the colonists
went fishing for shad, alewives, and salmon, species of fish that return from
the ocean to freshwater streams to reproduce. Salmon were so plentiful during
the colonial period that as late as 1700 they sold for only one cent a pound.
The spring profusion of fish brought farmers descending on the region’s rivers
… securing an important supply of dietary protein at precisely the point in the
seasonal cycle when they needed it most.

Learning about the dependence of colonists on these yearly
fish runs is a valuable lesson in and of itself in an age when most of our
students are hard pressed to say where any of their food comes from, let alone
seasonal variability of food in their region. But even more important lessons
lie in the stories of what happened to these fish runs, and the people who
depended on them, when factory owners began appropriating the rivers for
industrial production.

The dams built by factory owners like Slater and
corporations like the Boston Associates became a tangible focus of anger and
protest. Farmers in 1792 petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly to remove
Slater’s dam, but were thwarted when one of Slater’s partners preempted the
petition through insider political connections within the legislature. In 1859
people in Lake Village, New Hampshire took a more hands on approach,
attacking and attempting to destroy a dam owned by the Boston Associates:

The attackers included farmers angry over the flooding of
their meadows to convenience out-of-state factories; upstream mill owners who
resented being forced to follow the waterpower schedule of the lower Merrimack
corporations; loggers who wanted the gates lowered to send timber downstream;
and the poor and dispossessed, incensed that the economic transformation
pulsing through the region had left them behind.

One of the most important innovations to create wealth for
the Boston Associates was not a piece of mill technology but an idea–the “mill
power” concept. Steinberg explains the concept and its significance:

A mill-power equaled the amount of water necessary to
drive 3,584 spindles for spinning cotton yarn–the capacity of one of the Boston
Associates’ earliest factories–plus all the other machinery necessary for
transforming the yarn into cloth. The concept enabled the company to easily
package water and put it up for sale. By the 1830s, companies at Lowell even purchased
water without buying any land, breaking with past tradition. Water itself had
become a commodity.

The story of the how water was turned into a commodity by
the Boston Associates represents one of the most important lessons the history
of the commons can offer our students–the recognition that today’s “private
property” almost always hides a history of theft and dispossession. Steinberg
sums it up well:

The mills along the lower Merrimack incorporated the
natural wealth available in the countryside into their designs for production
and in so doing produced more than just cloth. They generated a chain of
ecological and social consequences that spilled out beyond the factories,
affecting places and people more than 100 miles away in a completely different
state. Nothing better demonstrates the ways in which industrialization led to a
major rationalization and reallocation of natural resources, enriching some at
the expense of others.

It is important not to romanticize traditional natural
commons as completely democratic or sustainable examples of how people can
subsist from the environment. But we would be remiss not to ask questions about
who benefited from the “progress” of the industrial era, and whether the new
economy was always an improvement over the economy of the commons that preceded

When we look at the Diggers’ resistance to enclosure, Native
Americans resisting the land theft of European colonizers, or colonial-era
farmers resisting the damming of rivers in 18th century New
England, a different historical narrative emerges: The growth of
industrial capitalism has always been predicated on the private enclosure of
the natural world. And these enclosures have always met with resistance.
Learning this alternative narrative encourages critical conversation about the
extent to which “economic growth” has been used to justify the private seizure
of the earth’s resources for the profits of a few–while closing off those same
resources, and decisions about how they should be used, to the rest of us. Even
more importantly, this conversation can help us understand today’s environmental
crises for what they really are: the culmination of hundreds of years of
privatizing and commodifying the natural world.

The private enclosure of nature continues today; it’s just
hard to see. Like the proverbial fish surrounded by the water of the “free
market,” it’s easy to assume that fossil fuel companies have some god-given
right to profit from polluting our atmospheric commons. How are young people to
recognize this atmospheric grab when the school curriculum has erased all
memory of our collective right to the natural commons?

Reclaiming these commons means fueling students’ knowledge
about a past that has conveniently disappeared. Educators did not create the
environmental crisis, but we have a key role to play in alerting students to
its causes–and potential solutions.

Tim Swinehart teaches at Lincoln High School in
Portland, Oregon.
This article was excerpted from Rethinking Schools
(Winter 2012-13), a nonprofit, independent publisher of educational materials
that advocates for the reform of elementary and secondary education.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.